How to Use Operant Conditioning in the Classroom

Discipline needs to be consistent in operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning is a type of learning that happens when certain behaviors are rewarded or punished. Thus the participant, or in this case, the student, becomes conditioned to perform certain behaviors instead of others in the anticipation of punishment or reward.

The father of operant conditioning is B.F. Skinner. Skinner’s famous experiment with rats in Skinner boxes showed that rats could learn to respond to stimuli in certain ways to earn food rewards and avoid electrical shocks. While you won’t be electrifying your classroom floor, there are many effective strategies for using operant conditioning in education.

  • Classroom rules
  • Outlined consequences

1 Advantages of Using Operant Conditioning in the Classroom

Using operant conditioning in the classroom can be beneficial in many ways. But the most important effect, at least from the teacher’s perspective, is the establishment of classroom management techniques. Using operant conditioning can give students immediate feedback about their behavior. When the teacher rewards positive behavior, other students are more likely to copy that behavior to earn the reward. The rewarded student is also more likely to repeat that behavior because of the positive feedback.

Immediate feedback is also useful in curtailing negative classroom behaviors. Light punishment or withholding of praise can function as operant conditioning in education. When the teacher punishes negative behavior, other students will want to avoid that punishment, and so they will be less likely to perform that behavior. The punished student will be less likely to repeat the behavior as well, though outside factors may come into play.

2 Disadvantages of Using Operant Conditioning in the Classroom

Using operant conditioning in the classroom can be part of a sound classroom management strategy. However, relying too heavily on operant conditioning alone has its drawbacks. Operant conditioning in education relies on extrinsic motivation, or factors outside the students themselves used to motivate behaviors. The downside to extrinsic motivation is that it is less permanent than intrinsic motivation, or motivation that comes from inside the self. Intrinsic motivation exists without the presence of external motivating factors. But when extrinsic motivations are relied on too heavily, when those motivating factors are removed, the behaviors they shaped are more likely to decrease or disappear as well.

Effective classroom management techniques use a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivating factors. Teachers can incorporate operant conditioning with other strategies for a more holistic approach.

3 Operant Conditioning Examples

Operant conditioning examples that teachers can use as part of their overall classroom management strategy are helpful. Operant conditioning examples can include positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Reinforcements, by definition, increase the targeted behavior, and punishments decrease targeted behaviors.

Operant Conditioning Examples for the Classroom

  • Positive Reinforcement: Students who line up quietly receive a smiley sticker.
  • Negative Reinforcement: The teacher ignores a student who shouts out answers but calls on him when he raises his hand.
  • Positive Punishment: A student gets detention after being late for class too many times.
  • Negative Punishment: The teacher moves a student away from her friend because she was talking during a test.

Rebecca Renner is a teacher and freelance writer from Daytona Beach, Florida. Her byline has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Magazine, Glamour and elsewhere.